Sam Brownback reflects on his first six years as Kansas governor
Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday that many Kansas voters misunderstood his policies during the recent election, when victorious legislative candidates made opposition to the governor’s policies the key issue.
Brownback enters the next year facing a budget hole and a Legislature where he has significantly reduced clout, but Brownback pushed back on the notion that he stands in opposition to the ideals that many of the incoming lawmakers based their campaigns on.
He rattled off a list off a list of common campaign promises: more money for schools, more money for the state’s pension system, an end to transfers of highway construction money into the state general fund and a fairer tax system.
“Well, I want to put more money into education, highways, KPERS (pension system). I want a fairer tax system, but it’s like that was all counter to my policies,” Brownback said during a year-end interview with The Kansas City Star.
Brownback blamed the media in large part for the perception that he is anti-education, contending that if a poll was conducted of Kansans the majority would say schools have been cut during his governorship when in reality total education funding has increased.
“People are running against cuts to schools. I agree,” Brownback said. “But it’s not true though.”
The increases in education funding during Brownback’s tenure are partly due to orders from the Kansas Supreme Court that have forced the state to spend more on education to ensure equity between districts. An upcoming ruling by the court will determine whether school spending is adequate.
Brownback said he thinks school funding will be the dominant issue of the next legislative session.
“The budget’s going to be important,” he said. “But long term, this is the big spend, is how we do the school funding.”
Lawmakers moved in 2015 to throw out the state’s old school finance formula in favor of a block grant system. Those grants are set to expire in 2017.
“What I want to do is shift to a system where it’s about outcomes,” Brownback said. “It’s about student performance, and we pay for that.”
Brownback also bemoaned the media’s focus on the state’s struggle to meet monthly revenue estimates, a phenomenon he blames on the struggling commodity market rather than his tax policies.
“I guess Missouri doesn’t even do a monthly because I never see their numbers coming out on a monthly basis … and every month it’s a huge headline in The Kansas City Star about it’s off this much. Well, that has impact on people,” Brownback said.
Missouri releases monthly revenue reports, but unlike Kansas it does not compare its revenue against estimates each month.
Brownback’s relationship with legislative leaders has become increasingly strained.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, told reporters Monday that lawmakers are worried that the governor won’t offer a serious budget solution in January because he’s pursuing a job with President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
“I think it would be more useful if she’d put forward proposals on how to deal with the budget instead of just calling names,” said Brownback, who did not dispel rumors about a possible role in the Trump administration. “We’ve got budget issues to wrestle with. Let’s start.”
Wagle later Wednesday chastised Brownback in a statement for his refusal to make cuts ahead of the session, something that is within his executive authority.
“The Governor’s lack of action only makes the necessary cuts deeper as we move further into the fiscal year,” she said. “The legislature will reconvene on January 9, at which point we’ll get to work on picking up the pieces and govern.”
Brownback said his door is open to lawmakers on possible budget proposals.
“They just went through a campaign,” Brownback said. “People ran as they saw that they needed to do or desired to do. They did. We’ll put forward proposals. We’ll work with people as much as we can at the end of the day.”
Brownback said that he has spent the last month building the state’s budget for the next two years. Kansas faces a more than $900 million shortfall for the next 18 months, which will have to be closed through some combination of budget cuts and tax increases.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and the newly appointed Senate budget chairwoman, said that she hopes the governor is willing to work with the Legislature “because eventually we’ve got to solve our problems in Kansas so we can move forward and improve our economy.”
Brownback said he is open to discussing changes to the tax system, but he remains defensive about an income tax exemption for business owners, his signature policy. Many candidates in both parties ran successful campaigns calling for the exemption to be eliminated.
“I would hate to have us go back in a field that’s taking off nationally on small-business growth,” Brownback said, noting that congressional Republicans are now exploring the idea at a national level. “We pioneered this field.”
Brownback noted that many people in Kansas have argued that the exemption is unfair and called that a legitimate argument.
“But I think it is less fair that we give these big subsidies to big companies,” Brownback said.
The governor would not talk about whether he’ll be in Topeka long-term. He would not answer when asked if he could promise to be in Topeka for the next two years.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, called on Brownback to end the speculation about Washington and commit to solving problems in Kansas.
“If he’s thinking about Washington, he should stop,” Ward said. “We’ve got a crisis in Kansas, more than one, that needs attention and we should stop playing around with this concept that he’s going … It’s time to focus on the problems of the people of Kansas, which is by the way the job he ran for.”
Asked if he had any regrets about his tenure as governor, Brownback said that the aspect of the job that is most important to him is building relationships.
“You want to be able to say hi, have a conversation and feel as if you were a positive contributor to their soul,” Brownback said. “I’m sure I’ve done things wrong in that regard, but at the end of the day, that’s what I hope to get the most right is to be a positive contributor to their soul. We’ll see.”